As the COVID-19 Pandemic Enters a New Phase, Protect Those Most at Risk

The news about the Coronavirus Disease 2019 is very hopeful now that COVID-19 is moving in the right direction again. The numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining, knowledge of the virus has grown, safe and effective vaccines are available to eligible people ages 5 and older in the United States, most Alabamians have some immunity either from vaccines or past infection, testing is widely available, and several new oral antiviral treatments and a pre-exposure prophylaxis for the immunocompromised are now authorized. The solid red high-risk map indicating overall level of community transmission seen over the past 2 months in the state is now colored in the low, moderate, or substantial risk levels in a majority of counties, and the percent positivity in tests is under 10. As we enter our third year battling COVID-19, more than half of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.
Is it now safe to return to our pre-COVID lifestyles and resume normal activities? That is a million-dollar question.

All viruses mutate, and new variants continue to be identified, such as the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant. As COVID-19 restrictions around the world are ending, there is a possibility another seasonal surge will occur.

From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew that people with certain medical conditions were more likely to become very sick from COVID-19. Those at greater risk include people who are elderly, immunocompromised, and who are living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and HIV. Individuals with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness are also at higher risk. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated its information to include physical inactivity as a risk factor for severe illness with COVID-19.

The CDC has long recognized that the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play contribute to their health. These conditions, over time, lead to different levels of health risks, needs, and outcomes among some people in certain racial and ethnic minority groups. In Alabama, many African Americans and members of other racial and ethnic minority groups live in low-income communities, have less access to healthcare services, and have higher instances of chronic disease. These and other social and socioeconomic risk factors contribute to disproportionately higher risks of morbidity and mortality related to COVID-19.

It is disappointing that Alabama remains the state with the lowest percentage of people fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and sad that more than 18,000 Alabamians have now died due to COVID-19. These sobering facts underscore the need for people to be cautious and protect the vulnerable in our state by judiciously masking indoors around people whose vaccination status is unknown and protecting the immunocompromised.

The CDC emphasizes that living with COVID-19 requires us to use the knowledge we have gained in the past 2 years about ways to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. Vaccination and boosters remain the leading method of preventing severe disease and deaths from COVID-19; people who are up to date on vaccines and boosters have markedly lower risks than unvaccinated people. While the virus will continue to circulate, we are encouraged that we have more effective tools and learned experience to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 than ever before. Remember to protect those at high risk by keeping up to date on your vaccinations and following preventive measures to reduce COVID-19 disease.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(March 2022)